Design Thinking for Business Innovation

Jeanne M. Liedtka, University of Virginia

This course provides an overview of the Design Thinking process and tools used for business innovation.

Design Thinking is a popular new idea in the business world – organizations as diverse as entrepreneurial start-ups, big established corporations, and government and social service organizations are experimenting with Design Thinking as an alternative approach to traditional problem-solving. Accelerated by the spectacular rise of Apple and IDEO, Design Thinking is seen as offering a new approach better-suited for dealing with the accelerating pressures for growth and innovation faced by so many organizations today. But Design Thinking can remain mysterious for people interested in introducing this approach into their decision-making processes. Demystifying it is the focus of this course.

Though designing as a craft requires years of dedicated education and talent to master, Design Thinking, as a problem solving approach, does not. In this course, we work with the following model that contains 4 questions and several tools: 

The 4 sequential questions that take us on a journey through an assessment of current reality (what is?), the envisioning of a new future (what if?), the development of some concepts for new business opportunities (what wows?), and the testing of some of those in the marketplace (what works?). The process of Design Thinking begins with data gathering: at the outset of the design process, designers gather a great deal of data on the users for whom they would like to create value. They mostly do this through ethnographic methods, such as experience mapping, rather than traditional methods, such as focus groups and surveys. Farther along in the process, designers make their new ideas concrete (in the form of prototypes) and go out and collect better data from the real world in a process that is hypothesis-driven. That is, they treat their new ideas as hypotheses to be tested. They surface the assumptions underlying their hypotheses and test them, usually looking for the kind of behavioral metrics that will allow them to iterate their way to improved value propositions.

Accompanying the 4 questions is a set of tools to help business people achieve the same kind of disciplined approach to innovation and growth that they bring to the rest of their business. In this course, we will look at several stories from different organizations – major corporations like IBM, entrepreneurial start-ups like MeYouHealth, and even social service organizations like The Good Kitchen – all using the Design Thinking tools and approach to achieve better outcomes.


Week 1: What is Design Thinking? We will begin our course by unpacking what we mean by Design Thinking and why it is more effective than traditional business methods when the goal is innovation in the business environment. By looking at the case history of The Good Kitchen, a Denmark program for providing meals for the elderly, we will explore how the mindset and practice of the innovation team that partnered with innovation consultant Hatch & Bloom enabled them to achieve innovation and growth. We’ll conclude Week 1 by examining what kinds of problems and challenges are best suited for a Design Thinking approach.

Week 2: How can we prepare ourselves to be leaders of innovation? Design Thinking is not only about process and tools. It is about people as well: about you as a design thinker and about the people you want to create value for and with. And so, before we jump into the process of using Design Thinking to generate and test ideas, we want to first focus on your own mindset and look at whether your mind is prepared to both see and act on opportunity when it shows up in your world. We will examine this issue by looking at the stories of two very capable managers, George and Geoff, and how their differing mindsets affect their ability to lead innovation and growth. We will also look at the role of visualization tools that use imagery and storytelling to bring ideas to life.

Week 3: How can you use Design Thinking to generate ideas? Now we will dive deeper into the Design Thinking process, looking at how we can use it to generate better ideas. This week, we will look at the story of an entrepreneur, Chris Cartter, and his start-up, MeYouHealth, as they worked with Boston design firm, Essential Design, to understand the kind of opportunity that social networking might hold for helping us to improve our health. Examining what already exists is the first step in the Design Thinking process. As part of assessing what is, designers “follow the customer home” and explore the problems they are trying to solve in life versus their product use. Once they have thoroughly explored and looked for patterns in what is, designers look toward the future and ask what if? These two questions – what is and what if – along with their associated tools will be the focus of Week 3. This is the creative part of the process, but it also contains a disciplined approach.

Week 4: How can you use Design Thinking to test ideas? Having generated all these great ideas, what’s next? The Design Thinking process now helps us to take the many ideas we have generated and figure out how to determine which ones are likely to produce the specific kinds of outcomes we want, whether these take the form of improved nutrition for the elderly (The Good Kitchen), healthier lifestyle choices (MeYouHealth) or even more “hot leads” emanating from your trade shows (in the IBM example we will look at this week). This week, we will follow the activities of an IBM team working closely with experience marketing agency George P. Johnson as they develop and test ideas for a revolutionary approach to trade show participation. This process begins by asking what wows? This question brings together the customer and business cases supporting our new concepts. Typically, the “wow” zone occurs at the intersection of three criteria: somebody wants it, we can create and deliver it, and doing so has the potential to produce the outcomes we as an organization want. Then we ask what works? and conduct small experiments to test if our assumptions are accurate. We'll conclude the week by reviewing what we have covered.

Recommended Background

Anyone interested in innovation in an organizational context would benefit from this class.

Suggested Readings

Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie

Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett

Course Format

This course will consist of video lectures, discussion opportunities, and an optional assignment for those interested in earning a Statement of Accomplishment or Verified Certificate.

Students will be eligible for a Statement of Accomplishment or Verified Certificate from this course if they (1) watch all of the course video lectures and (2) complete the Statement Form, which will ask them to provide an example of how they have used 2 of the design tools we will be exploring. These requirements must be met in order to be eligible for a Statement or Certificate.
  • 16 February 2015, 4 weeks
  • 4 November 2013, 5 weeks
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  • Language: English Gb


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